Music Therapy Training Playlist

Director of music Services (Education, research and quality assurance) Simon Proctor shares explores some of the styles of music covered in our Music Therapy Masters programme in his Apple Music playlist

1. Suzanne Vega – Tom’s Diner

The intimacy of the unaccompanied voice is a powerful thing. This is a great example of a simple a capella tune used to tell a story of something dark and uncomfortable. Suzanne Vega’s voice is so warm and human, a quality we would seek to encourage our students to develop in their own voices because it makes whatever they do so much more inviting. In addition, of course, everybody knows the remix version, and so the original version is a brilliant way of getting students to “hear” musical possibilities that could go with a simple melodic line. That means they need to be able to hear (and describe) implied rhythmic and harmonic structures – a crucial ability in the making of improvised music with another person.

2. Gavin Bryars (arr.) – Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Gavin Bryars created this loop, which gradually gets built up with repetition, from a recording of a homeless man singing a song that was clearly deeply meaningful for him. As music therapists we are often privileged to hear people singing sings that mean everything to them, in fact which might be crucial for their identity and their principal source of hope. In such circumstances it is our responsibility to do exactly what Bryars has done here – to recognise the dignity, the humanity and the beauty of their music-making – and then to honour this in our response and support. For me this is every bit as beautiful as a Mozart sonata or a Brahms symphony: indeed, given the humanity invested in it, possibly even more so.

3. O’Hooley & Tidow – Two Mothers

This is one of the most beautiful songs I know – it tells a moving human story of love and loss so simply: there isn’t a note here that doesn’t need to be there. Keeping music simple when required is surprisingly difficult but something that all music therapists need to be able to do if they are to keep the focus on their clients and their narratives as well as on their singing or playing. Belinda and Heidi’s voices are so different but sound so complete together – again, a very useful model for music therapists.

4. One-Note Samba (by Jobim, performed by Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd, from the album “Jazz Samba”)

Samba is another style that we try to encourage our students to get into: it can seem really challenging at first, especially for students who are classically trained and have learned to restrain themselves. Samba has to be experienced physically but then turning that physical experience into music-making can be really difficult – a one-note approach can be the most amazing way in – not just to samba, but to many styles. One-note marches, one-note waltzes, one-note raps – they are all great learning tools which help us to focus on the fundamental characteristics of the styles in ways which also help us to hear the stylistic potentials in what might otherwise sometimes seem to be the limited music-making of some clients.

5. Olivier Messiaen – Oiseaux exotiques

Olivier Messiaen’s music is a lifetime’s journey in itself – it’s extraordinary and full of inspiration for the sort of musical imagination and inventiveness that music therapists need to be able to draw upon. His harmonic language is something really wonderful, but I’ve chosen this piece for its imitation of bird song. Messiaen has this wonderful ability to pay musical attention to everything and thus to hear everything as music, and again this is an attitude that music therapists need to cultivate: there is potential for expression, for melody and rhythm, for interaction and making music together in every sound, whether it is intended as music or not. I once saw this piece being performed live in a rural barn and the birds around were drawn into listening and responding – just as we often seek to draw our clients in to being an active part of our response to them. And this piece works because Messiaen doesn’t just “copy” or “imitate” the bird calls – rather he transforms them so that they can be active protagonists in the musical drama.

6. Debussy – La Cathédrale engloutie (played by Nelson Freire)

Another French piece – we teach our students to play “impressionistically” – and Debussy provides lots of working examples. Sometime it is really useful in music therapy to be able to create a musical world which is all-containing but not too defined or concrete: a bit of vagueness or ambivalence about the tonal centre or the pulse coupled with washes of sound can offer a degree of freedom which a client might need in order to take a musical risk with the therapist. This piece is a very famous one for the piano: it is supposedly a musical image of a sunken cathedral. Debussy does a great job of creating “watery” musical space – and it’s in that musical space that things can begin to happen in music therapy.

7. Stockhausen Klavierstück IX (played by Pollini)

This is an inspiring example of how repetition and space are so powerful in music. When I discovered this music I was amazed by it. I still find a good live performance of it absolutely riveting, and that’s how music should be! It grips my attention and takes over my body …. I find myself breathing with it and being shocked and provoked and enlivened by the changes when they come. As music therapists, sometimes we find ourselves making music with people who “just repeat” – but there are so many possibilities in repetition. In music we can help people to experience their repetitions in very different ways, sometimes even shockingly different ways :in this way they encounter their own possibilities.

8. Berg Violin Concerto

I love the way Berg takes serialism and makes it human and even romantic. Despite the rigour of his compositional style, there is such a warmth here and a treasuring of small motifs. I use this with students because the opening motif on the violin is just each of the open strings in turn – going up and then going down again. This is what many people do when they first pick up a violin (because you can do it without using the fingers of your left hand) but Berg takes this absolutely seriously, transforming it into something complex, beautiful and expressive – absolutely what music therapists need to know can happen.

9. Grimethorpe Colliery Band – Abide with Me

I’ve chosen this for two reasons. The first has to do with identity: I come from a part of the country where brass bands are part of our heritage, and this affects me even though I don’t play a brass instrument myself. There is something about the sound of a brass band, especially playing a hymn tune, that stirs my soul in ways I find difficult to explain. Understanding this connection between music and identity is important for music therapists and the best starting point is to reflect on our own musical identities. The second reason has to do with harmony. Simple four-part harmony can be very basic and restricting, or it can surprise and delight and subvert my expectations in ways I find irresistible. Putting these two reasons together, the harmony in this arrangement and the voicings of the various parts alter my perception not only of the hymn, but of the world around me. Many students associate four-pat harmony with old-style keyboard harmony tests, but it’s a living, breathing  powerful tool for offering new musical experiences to our clients.

10. Russian National Anthem

This is such a musically powerful statement that it almost knocks you over! It is fun to think about the impressions made by different national anthems, how these are achieved musically, and how these effects might be useful in music therapy. This anthem is so strong and its lines are so long – the harmony just carries you inexorably towards its triumphant conclusion. It feels irresistible – which might be thrilling, or might be terrifying. Probably that’s the point. Music moves us because of its constituent elements, but the link between music and emotion isn’t straightforward – it’s mediated by context, by culture and by personal experience.

11. The Specials – A Message to You, Rudy

Ska has a very particular lilt to it, and thus playing or singing it has a particular kind of physical sensation to it. This is a great song for introducing people to ska so that they can make use of this “feel”. Something we sometimes do with our students, once we have played and thought about why this song feels the way it does, is get them to “ska up” other songs. In music therapy practice, it is really useful to be able to stick with something (a song being offered by a client, for example,) but accompany it differently, e.g. by changing the style or even just the skank.

12. The White Stripes – Seven-Nation Army

Apart from being very catchy, this song has a very clear structure which can be built up element by element so it’s a great example for helping students to think about how to get a group of people performing a song they are familiar with (even if they would describe themselves as non-musicians!) The bassline is simple and absolutely defines the character of the song – basslines are SO important (just ask any bass player!)

13. Angels – Robbie Williams

This song arises very often in my work with adults: it’s very well known, very memorable, and all sorts of people seem to love it. When we think about song writing with our students, I often use this as an example of a song which has a really clear structure. In particular the introduction to the chorus suddenly departs from the relatively static contour of the verse by switching to the rising broken chord – and thrillingly it overshoots the tonic, landing on the note above on the first beat of the bar. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what all of that means: you can just feel it. The other thrilling bit is the instrumental break, where there Is a lovely structure which can contain all sorts of “freaking out”. This collocation of structure and freedom is crucial to music therapy.

14. “Willkommen” from Cabaret

Cabaret isn’t really a genre – it’s a sort of attitude to all sorts of music coupled with an openness to the exaggerated and the unconventional situated in a certain kind of social setting. In these ways it’s rather like music therapy, and like music therapy it can embrace and make use of many styles. Lots of people know the musical Cabaret, which captures a certain era and place within which cabaret played a significant role. The opening song is a great example of how a vamping accompaniment can go on and on and underpin lots of words, bursting into life in the gaps with the chorus ..: “Willkommen ….”. This kind of vamping (which can go on for as long as is needed before returning to something familiar) is a very useful skill for Nordoff Robbins music therapists.

15. Samidh Mukherjee – Loveria

One of the privileges of music therapy is the opportunity it presents to learn new music from the people we work with, many of whom come to music therapy with a strong sense of musical identity and taste. Part of the music therapist’s role is then to learn from the client – and this can lead to some challenging but wonderful musical discoveries. I’ve chosen to highlight two areas that I have learned from here. The first comes from Bangla pop – I didn’t realise until I started working with young Bengali people how popular this is and what a meeting ground it offers for different musical traditions. This is a film song and it’s bursting with fun, with opportunities for mass participation, and with opportunities for me to pick up snippets of musical character.

16. Orchestra Baobab – Sibou Odia

Another discovery for me via music therapy is the music of Western Africa, especially Senegal. Orchestra Baobab’s music is often described as Afro-Cuban fusion but, whatever the label, it’s really inventive and from this I have learned about the wonderful possibilities for “roughness” in solos as well as the juxtaposition of lightness and intensity. There’s also a freedom to improvise within song structures, sometimes over long stretches of time. I sometimes use this to challenge students to “take their time”…no rushing allowed!

17. MC Solaar – Samedi Soir

Hip hop isn’t just music, it’s a way of life, and for many of the people music therapists work with it is an obvious way to be expressive and to join with other people in music making.  Whilst some of our students are at home with rapping, others definitely aren’t. It’s a key genre for music therapists because of the freedom it brings and in encouraging students to develop this capacity, it sometimes helps not to worry about the words at first but just to experience the feel and sound of rap. And of course there isn’t just one way to rap: I love the French-language rap of West African musicians that comes out of France. I sometimes use this track to show how beautiful rap can be. It’s actually a hidden track at the end of M C Solaar’s “Cinquième As” and there is something satisfyingly “end of the day” about it which I love – it contrasts with what many people think rap has to be and opens up whole new vistas of musical experience. And if you don’t understand the words, it doesn’t matter: it might even help you to appreciate this as a purely musical experience.

18. Arvo Pärt – De Profundis

The steadfastness of this music’s unchanging pulse combined with its large-scale dynamics – a massive crescendo followed by a corresponding diminuendo – make this compelling listening for me. This music unfolds very slowly but holds my attention throughout. At the same time the vocal lines are combined with real attention to the lyrical and it is a great exercise for students to improvise vocal duets in this style.

19. Schumann – Cello Concerto (played by Steven Isserlis)

This piece probably isn’t as well-known as it should be – it dates from a time when Schumann’s life was being increasingly dominated by his mental illness. I use this (amongst a collection of pieces) to introduce the idea of creativity amidst mental illness to our students. It is important that our students understand that a psychiatric diagnosis doesn’t mean being without creativity: they need to learn to listen out for the well amidst the illness.

20. “Short Tales from the Black Forest” from Friday Night in San Francisco (ft. John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola)

I have chosen this song not because it features two of the greatest guitarists I’ve ever heard, but because of the active role of the audience. It is often assumed, especially in Europe, that musicians play and non-musicians listen. But in fact, at its best, musical situations are much more interactive and intersubjective. Hear you can hear the audience becoming a part of the playful interaction – their whooping and cheering not only becomes part of the music but redirects it and helps to shape it. As Nordoff Robbins music therapists, we understand that everyone is a musician, and that every sound or movement someone makes can shape and redirect the music being made. Where we engage in performance events with our clients, we need to be thinking about the involvement of the audience in the event too.

21. Grace Petrie –  Farewell to Welfare

There is a great and necessary tradition of the social and political protest song – it’s an important aspect of what music can be for people. Billy Bragg was part of my growing up and it cheers my soul to know that this tradition is still thriving and developing in the hands of people like Grace Petrie. Her passion and commitment are musically evident: I love the physicality of her performance – her whole body is devoted to the singing, playing and conveying of this song because its message is so important to her, and so she lives every musical nuance. That’s something that I think all music therapists can keep learning from – this music right now is the most important thing there is and my commitment to it has to be total.

22. Richard Galliano – Improvisation on the theme “Libertango” by Piazzolla (from the album “Piazzolla Forever”)

Tango is a world of music in itself, full of variation, but always defined by discipline and commitment. I have chosen a track by Richard Galliano, a brilliant accordionist whose live performances are compelling. Although tango is traditionally for two, he does amazing performances with his accordion – and at times seems to be dancing with the instrument. It’s a great way of embodying the music. Lots of classical musicians are taught not to move whilst playing, but music is a physical thing. Our clients participate in music by moving and we have to as well! Tango is a great way of helping musicians to get physical.

23. Keith Jarrett – the Köln Concert

As someone who uses the piano a great deal in music therapy, I couldn’t not include Keith Jarrett somewhere in this list. Jarrett and Glenn Gould both challenge and inspire me as a pianist within music therapy – I particularly love Jarrett’s ability to go in different directions, apparently inspired by something that just happens musically . I use his playing to show students (and remind myself) that something unexpected – even a supposed “mistake” – can be a fertile source of possibilities. In music therapy, nothing is wrong – everything is a possibility!

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